Game Room — May 7, 1970
I racked the balls tight, just like I taught him; just like my father taught me. I pointed the number on the black 8-ball straight up, for luck. The varnish on the rack had worn away, leaving light circular thumbprints. He always wanted to rack the balls. I always let him. I felt the place his fingers always touched as I put the rack away.
I circled the table, examining the rack of balls. I traced my fingers around the felt bumpers as I walked. They grazed the spot where we engraved our names. We built the table together. Billiards had always been a family game. Building a billiards table is a major undertaking. It requires so much precision, so much commitment. If the slightest measurement is off — the level, the square — the game suffers. The slightest mistake changes the game.
I positioned the cue ball at the first mark, lined up to the right. I set myself, exhaled, and then struck. I pocketed a stripe. I always took stripes. He wanted solids. He had loved the bright colors ever since I had to hold him up at the table. He had been so excited to build this. All he could talk about was the game. The game excited him. Everything excited him. When I was with him, everything excited me.
“Can we make the top blue, Daddy?”
“I was thinking green.”
“I like blue.”
“Okay, blue it is.”
“Why do they call it pool?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you swim in it?”
“What if you put water in it?”
I lined up for my first shot. I predicted the ricochet of the cue ball. I visualized the perfect stroke to set up the next shot. Life was a pool game. You set things up, lined up your shot, and took it. You always stayed one step ahead of your opponent.
My fingers glanced against a rough spot in the blue surface, dried milk. He had been trying to play the game on his own. The table had only been finished for a couple of weeks. I don’t know how long it took for him to give up on using the cue. By the time I found him, he had decided it was much better to throw the balls instead. He laid on the table. His toes barely touched the folding chair he had climbed on. He collided balls into each other. He looked back at me. He smiled.
“I’m playing pool, Daddy!”
“I see that.”
He eyed his next shot. His tongue stuck out between his lips. He was about to roll when I saw the milk glass lying on its side. I yelled, more out of frustration than anger. I had spent so many hours building that table. He had damaged it in two weeks. He cried. Guilt crushed me. I picked him up from the chair. I held him in my arms and told him it would be okay. It was only milk. I took him to the rocking chair my grandfather had built. We rocked. I read him a book. I don’t remember the title. It doesn’t matter. Being a father wasn’t about the books you read. It was about being there to read them.
I lined up another shot. Parallel lines worn into the surface mocked my peripheral vision. I hadn’t noticed them in years. We spent a lot of time at the table. He was proud of it. The table became his favorite play surface. After the milk incident, I found him using the table to race cars. I didn’t say anything. I stood in the doorway. I watched him roll the little metal cars in perpetual circles. He talked to himself, the wonderful nonsense of a child’s imagination. He didn’t know I was there. I don’t know how long I watched. Finally, I pulled up a chair beside him and took control of a car.
The ball came off the cue at an odd angle. I had difficulty lining up the next shot. My eyes felt stiff and hot; I held back tears. My father never cried. A man didn’t show weakness. He took care of the problem. Tears took up time better used to fix it. Goddamn blue. My eyes hurt to look at it.
He wanted blue. He always loved water. He loved oceans, lakes, even farm ponds. He loved swimming. He loved fishing. He loved the boat. I took him to see water all over this planet. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he told me.
“I want to join the Navy.”
“I’m a man—“
“You aren’t joining the Navy.”
“Grandpa did it.”
“Yes, he did.”
“You did it.”
“But you aren’t.”
He threw the cue ball across the table. He walked out on the game. I went after him. His eyes shimmered, but he would not cry. I gave him a hug. He did not return it.
“Just let me go.”
I kept him out of the Navy. Kids came home from Vietnam in bags. Instead, I sent him to college. We made a deal. Get a degree. After that, I wouldn’t stop him.
I hoped he might learn something. I hoped college might change his mind. It did. He learned to hate the war. He learned to hate the military. It was a strange thing for me. I had been so proud of my father’s service. I had great pride in my own. I felt hurt, yet relieved. I felt like a traitor. But I played for the next shot. I set up my son for a run at the table. Who could have known it would go so badly?
I got the news from his girlfriend at Kent State, shortly after it happened. I couldn’t understand her. She cried too much. I tried to calm her down. She hung up on me. I called the school, I couldn’t get through.
I never found out why they shot him.
I don’t remember the funeral. It was all fuzzy, like a radio slightly off-frequency. My wife told me I laid a patch from my Navy uniform down upon his chest. I don’t remember it. I don’t remember going to the cemetery. I don’t remember him descending into the ground. I don’t remember his mother crying. I don’t remember my father being unable to look me in the eye.
I lined up my next shot. My eyes fogged over. My breathing hitched. My hands shook. I struck the cue ball too hard. The bounce off the bumper knocked the eight ball into the side pocket. Scratched. It didn’t matter how well I planned out the game. One mistake was all it took. I lost.
I left the cue lying on the table.
I never played again.